The Language of Sexual Harassment, Assault, Violence and Rape

By Ali Linney

“She wanted it”, “I only touched her a bit”, “Groped”, “Penetrated”, “They didn’t say no.”

This blog post was difficult to write, not because I wasn’t impassioned, not because I didn’t have anything to say; but because there is such a breadth of things to write about that focusing on one particular area of sexual violence is hard, and limiting. However, the construct of language is something so inherent in any gender or sexual based violence that it’s hard to ignore and yet for a lot of people it doesn’t even get a second thought.

‘Grope’ . Look up a synonym for ‘Grope’: Fumble, Fondle, Finger, Caress, Molest.

Can you see the different connotations each of those words hold? Saying to a friend, ‘I was groped last night’ is completely different for many, to ‘I was caressed last night’, conversely saying ‘I was molested last night’ holds an entirely different connotation than any of the above. Yet they all apparently mean the same, they are all apparently equally ‘bad’, yet so many of them have been appropriated by perpetrators to purely generate an emotive response because apparently saying you ‘caressed’ somebody isn’t the same as groping them. Something so small, a synonym, can have repercussions far beyond the initial act: shame (‘it was only a grope’), friends and authoritative figures shunning the act (‘it wasn’t that bad, it was only a caress’) and denial.

Something as small as a word, our language, can minimise an act of assault or violence.

Think of the last one on the above list; ‘They didn’t say no’.

The victim might have been passed out, may have been restrained, and may have been embarrassed or ashamed, or maybe just felt that they could not speak out. Does that mean the lack of verbal response demonstrates it wasn’t assault or rape? Does something as inherent as the word ‘no’, muttered inaudibly or not at all, diminish the tremendous feelings for the victim? No. It doesn’t. Yet language comes into play here again; the police, friends, even the perpetrator can diminish your claim, your rights because of a word. A word that should be inherent in all sexual acts and meetings.

Think how often you say the word ‘no’ in a day, yet in this instance; the lack of it can decide trial fates, friendships, mental health and everything from the moment of the attack. One word can have repercussions for years, if not a lifetime.

What do we do about this though? How can we appropriate words that have been, for so long, used against victims of violence, harassment and assault? Will there ever be a time where saying you had been ‘groped’ will mean the same as being ‘molested’ or ‘attacked’?

I think, inherently, it comes down to perceptions of what constitutes ‘real’ assault. For so long in this society, people have held the belief that ‘real’ assault and violence is perpetrated by strangers, against young, scantily clad women, it is always violent, and it always ends in a police report. Considering the vast quantity of literature and statistics that prove the opposite, one would assume that society would begin to take words such as ‘grope’ and the lack of words such as ‘no’ and place them in the category of assault or violence without a second thought. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

So what can we do? Ultimately, the aim is to shift perceptions; to open people’s eyes to the language of assault – no matter the connotations, and to demonstrate that simply changing the synonym, doesn’t change the incident or the victims feelings for it. How can we achieve this? Organisations such as It Happens Here are doing just that; opening people’s eyes, helping people to understand and retaking language that for so long, has been appropriated by perpetrators, institutions and society to minimise assault, harassment and rape.

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One thought on “The Language of Sexual Harassment, Assault, Violence and Rape

  1. zv chokovich says:

    We recently launched a social network site based on sexual harassment, rape, bullying, and all forms of violence. Communicate, discuss, and share your story.Speak up! Together, let us take a stand.zoglli.com

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